Monday, March 31, 2014

Sweeping the court

Here are the 10 WTA Things To Know this week.

Women's Tennis Blog is celebrating its seventh birthday. Get in on the celebration and win a beautiful L'Etoile Sport Blouson tennis dress.

The ball girls in Charleston are wearing tennis skirts this year. It's a look I don't like because I think it makes the girls stand out too much (I'm not keen on the outfits, either, but that's another issue).

A look I do like: Flavia Pennetta and Kirsten Flipkens at the zombie gathering in Monterrey. Here are some more photos. More zombie player parties, please!

Caroline Wozniacki and Ana Ivanovic played some wheelchair tennis in Monterrey.

Top seeds talk on Charleston opening day

Photo by Daniel Ward

Serena Williams, Jelena Jankovic and the other top Family Circle Cup seeds met the press today as main draw play began in Charleston. Jankovic, as always, was worth the entire trip to the All Access Hour event. The second seed talked about everything from her elastic body to her early ballet lessons to the shock of seeing herself fall down on the court in recent tournaments.

Eugenie Bouchard impressed with her mature approach to her new fame, and with her belief that she cannot worry about things over which she has no control.

2009 Sabine Lisicki talked about what it's liked to be coached by Martina Hingis; she said she feels confident about hitting the ball, but Hingis is helping her learn when to hit the ball. The often-injured German player now has a physio traveling with her. She discussed her recent shoulder injury, but when asked about all the injuries she has sustained in the last six months, her reply was "You can look them up."

While she's in Charleston, Sloane Stephens is living in a house with coach Paul Annacone and hitting partner Andrew Fitzpatrick. "If I don't put the rule in place," she said, "they just do whatever they want." Apparently, Stephens has to set rules about everything from parking the car to opening beverage bottles.

Stephens said that, for her, the transition from green clay to red clay is more difficult than the transition from hard courts to green clay.

Photo by Daniel Ward
2010 champion Sam Stosur and top seed and defending champion Serena Williams both sounded relaxed and ready for competition. Stosur said she was grateful to be in good health for this year's tournament. Asked about her favorite of all the tennis outfits she's ever worn, Williams said immediately that she favored both the cat suit and the denim kit. She also talked a little about her training regimen and how it changes from time to time. She said she no longer runs, and that she does flexibility training, but that it's not really related to her tennis.

I was fortunate to also attend the annual patron party, where there were some pretty impressive guests: Maria Kirilenko, Sloane Stephens, Eugenie Bouchard, Daniela Hantuchova, and Nadia Petrova were all there. Kirilenko, just returning from a long injury layoff, had already gone out of the tournament. The Russian star was defeated in the first round today by Belinda Bencic, who needed five match points to get the job done.

Hantuchova, who readily acknowledged that clay was her most difficult surface, said that she was taught to play tennis by her grandmother, and that she still plays exactly the way her grandmother taught her.

Also going out today in the opening round were Varvara Lepchenko, Christina McHale, Julia Goerges, and Alison Riske.

"I feel embarrassed sometimes with what I do on court"

Photo by Daniel Ward

Jelena Jankovic told the press today in Charleston that she saw recent video of herself repeatedly falling down on the court, and it made her say "Oh my god--who is that?" "I was smiling more," she said about her past court demeanor, and noted that these days, she's more apt to be yelling at her box or falling down. The Serbian star also remarked that these antics have come about since her brother began coaching her, and that she thinks she performs them because he lets her get away with it.

Jankovic made a point of explainng that she wants to be able to express emotion on court--that not to do so would be detrimental to her performance--but that she needs to find a balance between expressing emotion and going "over the limit." "At times when I get so frustrated I just lose control and my game falls apart…."

"Sometimes I turn into kind of a beast," Jankovic said. "My evil twin comes on court." Jankovic said she was working on restoring the balance, but wasn't specific about how she was doing so.

The world number 8, who is seeded second in Charleston, said that she can't run quite as fast as she used to, and that the physical demands of the game take a bit more out of her now, yet she feels she is a better and physically stronger player than she used to be. She acknowledged that she was a good mover on the court even when she was very young and just learning, even when she had "toothpick legs."

Jankovic brought up an interesting point--that when a player is going from tournament to tournament and playing a lot of matches, she doesn't have time to train and work on weaknesses and can sometimes lose training momentum.

Jankovic won the Family Circle Cup in 2007 when she defeated Dinara Safina in an extremely windy, post-tornado final. She was the runner-up last year, losing in three sets to Serena Williams. Jankovic will begin her Charleston campaign with a second round contest against Lauren Davis.

Quote of the day

"I don't know why I have ab problems; I don't have abs."
Sloane Stephens

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Wild cards win Miami doubles title

Wild cards Martina Hingis and Sabine Lisicki won the Sony Open today when they defeated 2nd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina 4-6, 6-4, 10-5 in the final. Hingis and Lisicki had already beaten Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Safarova, then Cara Black and Sania Mirza. Wow. After last season, Hingis sounded so discouraged, I didn't expect her to come back this year. She did, though, and was playing with Flavia Pennetta up until the Miami tournament. Her partnership with Lisicki is new, and one can presume that they'll play together again.

I'm in Charleston and exhausted after a day of travel, which included a bumpy flight from Atlanta. One interesting thing happened, however: I was seated in the Atlanta boarding lounge next to a sports massage therapist who travels all over the country treating athletes.

Vicky Duval lost her second qualifying match today; she was beaten by Kiki Bertens. Top seed Zarina Diyas went out, too, to Grace Min. Belinda Bencic made it through qualifying, and will play Maria Kirilenko in the first round.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Serena Williams wins seventh Miami title

Li Na went up 5-2 today in the first set of the Miami final, she served for the set on two occasions, and she held a set point. Defending champion Serena Williams, her opponent, won the match 7-5, 6-1. And if you had to give this match a very quick description, "I'm Serena and you're not" would work just fine. It took Williams a while to get into the match, but once she made the proper adjustments, she was unstoppable.

Williams has now won the Sony Open seven times. Soon, she'll arrive in Charleston, where she is also the defending champion. Williams makes the transition from hard courts to green clay quite well, and has an excellent chance of defending yet another championship.

Speaking of Charleston, the draw was made today, and--should Elina Svitolina win her first round match against a yet-to-be determined qualifier--she will face Sloane Stephens in the second round. Sam Stosur is likely to get Yaroslava Shvedova (who also plays a qualifier in the first round). Qualifying play was delayed a few hours today because of weather.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Bencic and Duval to play qualifying rounds in Charleston

Belinda Bencic, seeded 7th in the qualifying event, will face wild card Chan Jung-Jan in the first round of Charleston qualifying on Saturday. Also scheduled to play is 7th seed Vicky Duval, who will oppose wild card Ellie Halbauer. Zarina Dyas is the number 1 qualifying event seed.

Women Who Serve will cover the event beginning Monday, March 31. Daniel Ward, thankfully, will once again provide his wonderful photography.

Serena Williams is both the top seed and the defending champion. Other former champions who are entered are Jelena Jankovic, Venus Williams, Samantha Stosur, Sabine Lisicki, and Nadia Petrova. Petrova is playing as a wild card. Jankovic, who won the Family Circle Cup in 2007, was last year's runner-up.

The weather for the Charleston area is predicted to be mild in the day and pleasantly cool at night for the duration of the tournament, with a slight chance of rain later in the week. If this sounds too good to be true, it's probably because it is. The weather on Daniel Island has a way of "interfering" with the forecast, so if you are going to the tournament, you need to be prepared for sudden changes. Last year, it really was pretty mild with pleasant coolness at night, but there was one really serious thunderstorm that stopped the show. In the past, there have been tornadoes, and going from burning hot to freezing cold is not unusual. Just be prepared.

No matter what the weather is like--and this year's weather is likely to be as good as last year's--the tournament provides a great atmosphere for everyone, with plenty of player access, lots of space for relaxing, and an opportunity to watch some of the world's best players hit the green clay. The Charleston crowd is really up on women's tennis, and the players--in both singles and doubles--get a lot of support. This tournament has great historic importance, and there's a great vibe all over the grounds during the event.

Sometimes it feels like we could just phone it in

Serena Williams beat Maria Sharapova in straight sets yesterday in the Miami semifinals. There's really no "news" there, but it is worth mentioning that Sharapova went a break up at the start of both sets. In fact, she came close to being able to serve for the first set. But Williams served her way past all those situations, and left the court with a 6-4, 6-3 victory.

The other semifinal was a bit more complicated. Dominika Cibulkova finally took a set off of Li Na, but only one set. Li defeated her 7-5, 2-6, 6-3, and yes, it was a long winding road to the handshake. Neither player could get her serve going, and the constant wind certainly didn't help. The momentum swings were dramatic, and Cibulkova was close to going up 4-1 in the final set. When the players weren't serving, they played well.

So now, Williams plays Li--another player against whom she has an outstanding record--in the final. Li has never won Miami; Williams has won it six times.

Semifinals in women's doubles will be played today.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Today, the tennis gods were out to trick me. I had to leave my house for an appointment right at the moment that Aga Radwanska had match point against Dominika Cibulkova in the second set of their quarterfinal match in Miami. I didn't think too much about it, except to make a mental note of how well everything had timed out for me. What I didn't know was that the moment I turned off my television, Radwanska would hit that match point, only Cibulkova would challenge it, would win the challenge, and then turn the entire match on its head.

The second set went to a tiebreak instead, and Cibulkova won it. Cibulkova--with her new, healthy thigh/hip and her new mental approach--is now an official danger to just about anyone. She would go on to win the match 3-6, 7-6, 6-3, and by doing so, to enter the top 10 for the first time in her career. I would go on to kick myself for leaving my house, though I'd probably keep my appointment (with my trainer--I'm strict with myself about this) if I had to do it all over again.

Radwanska, even after missing out on match point, went up 5-2 in the tiebreak. A bad line call also seems to have shaken Radwanska, but the concept of Radwanska's letting something like that get the better of her is completely foreign. Still feeling bad after Indian Wells, maybe?

It wasn't like it was an easy task for either of them; the first set was really just break after break after break. But this is the sort of match that Cibulkova used to lose, and now it's the sort of match that she wins.

Cibulkova's opponent in the semfinals will be Li Na. That's who the Slovakian star lost to in the Australian Open final. Li defeated Caroline Wozniacki 7-5, 7-5. Tennis Channel commentator Brett Haber referred to the "Carosel of coaches" the Dane has gone through. Actually, it's more of a "Carovan," but I get the point.*

The other semifinal will be yet another meeting of Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams, and how dreary that must be for 'Pova. But she does get another shot at cracking the code, and should she succeed, she'll reach her sixth Miami final.

Sharapova defeated Petra Kvitova 7-5, 6-1 yesterday. Kvitova was coughing and sweating a lot, and was obviously affected by her asthma, but she, too, appeared to be done in by a line call sort of thing. She was never the same after she unsuccessfully challenged what she saw as a double bounce on Sharapova's side of the court.

Williams defeated Angelique Kerber 6-2, 6-2 in her Tuesday quarterfinal.

In doubles, wild cards Martina Hingis and Sabine Lisicki have reached the semifinals.

*If any of you is wondering why Piotr Wozniacki is now "Victor," Todd Spiker has unearthed the explanation. Caroline Wozniacki has now added a "new" coach without even making a phone call.

Sweeping the court

Melanie Oudin has received a wild card into the main draw of the Family Circle Cup. Receiving wild cards into the quaifying event are Taylor Townsend, Grace Min, Ellie Halbauer, and Tornado Alicia Black.

Thanks to The Slice for this "Lightning Round" with Petko.

And here's the Lightning Round with Dominika Cibulkova.

You can get to know Kurumi Nara and Lauren Davis.

A "Thank you" tweet from Elena Baltacha.

ESPN expands coverage of Family Circle Cup

ESPN and the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, South Carolina have signed a new agreement that will extend their long-time relationship. This arrangement includes television coverage on ESPN2 starting with the round of 16,  and an expanded week-long schedule on ESPN3. The multi-year agreement takes effect with this year’s tournament, which begins Monday, March 31.

ESPN3 will cover all main stadium matches from March 31 through April 6. ESPN2 coverage begins April 3 and goes through April 6. As always, Pam Shriver and Cliff Drysdale will be the commentators.  

ESPN3 is available online and can be streamed to television screens via Xbox LIVE (Gold members), Apple TV and Roku, or through affiliated subscription television service providers. It is also available through the WatchESPN mobile app.

The Family Circle Cup, the only WTA event played on green clay, is the largest women’s-only tennis tournament in the world.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Top seed Williams advances to Miami quarterfinals

A few players had it pretty easy in today's 4th round play in Miami. Defending champion Serena Williams, 2nd seed Li Na and Caroline Wozniacki all got through in straight sets, and dropped only seven games among them. Williams ended Coco Vandeweghe's run, Li ran over Carla Suarez Navarro, and Wozniacki really ran over Varvara Lepchenko, who won only one game.

It took Maria Sharapova three sets to beat Kirsten Flipkens, just as it took Angelique Kerber three sets to beat Ekaterina Makarova. And it took Agnieszka Radwanska over two and a half hours to overcome the increasingly pesky Elina Svitolina. (Note: Sharapova double-faulted 10 times.)

The score of the day, however, belonged to Petra Kvitova, who defeated Ana Ivanovic 3-6, 6-0, 6-0. Is that a "Petra" kind of scoreline, or what?

The night match was well-anticipated, and with good reason. Dominika Cibulkova and Venus Williams went at it for almost two hours and 20 minutes, with Cibulkova winning 6-1, 5-7, 6-3. This was a really good match, with each woman fighting like mad. The spectators got a treat, and even though the crowd was very pro-Venus, as expected, they seemed to appreciate the sometimes stunning performance of Cibulkova. The last few points--a break of Williams' serve--were especially impressive. The "new" Cibulkova is healthier, calmer and way more cerebral. She's always been tough.

Here is the quarterfinal draw, and an interesting one it is indeed:

Serena Williams (1) vs. Angelique Kerber (5)
Maria Sharapova (4) vs. Petra Kvitova (8)
Dominika Cibulkova (10) vs. Agnieszka Radwanska (3)
Wozniacki (11) vs. Li (2)

Here are the head-to-heads:

Williams--Kerber: 3-1
Sharapova--Kvitova: 4-2
Cibulkova--Radwanska: 2-5
Wozniacki--Li: 2-3

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sloaney is as Sloaney does

Todd at WTA Backspin has been known to coin a great adjective ("Jankovician" and "Radwanskan" come to mind) from time to time. His latest is "Sloaney," which is, I think self-explanatory. And oh, how Sloaney the world number 16 was tonight in Miami. I mean no disrespect to her opponent, Caroline Wozniacki, who did her job and did it well, while hitting only about a half dozen winners. But Wozniacki didn't have to do anything else; Stephens was a not-very-moving target, just waiting to be picked off. There was no energy, no creativity and no aggression on her part. She  made five points in the second set. Wozniacki beat her 6-1, 6-0.

Something is really wrong in Sloaneville. 

Meanwhile, Varvara Lepchenko slugged it out with Ajla Tomljanovic for three hours, and won, 6-4, 6-7, 7-6. Impressive. Venus Williams beat Casey Dellacqua, though it took her three sets to get the job done. Dominika Cibulkova won a hard-fought two-setter (7-6, 6-4) against Alize Cornet (who seems to finally be hitting her stride again), Li Na beat Madison Keys 7-6, 6-3, and Aga Radwanska beat Elena Vesnina 7-5, 6-3. Carla Suarez Navarro defeated Kaia Kanepi, and Elina Svitolina defeated Barbora Zahlavova Strycova.

I'm going to miss most of tomorrow's play because of my work schedule (work--always getting in the way of watching tennis), but I hope to catch some highlights here and there.

Hot Coco scalds Stosur

What a tennis-watching day I had yesterday. I never intended to watch Serena Williams and Caroline Garcia on my phone at a carwash, but I did. And I certainly didn't intend to stay up and watch Sam Stosur play Coco Vandeweghe, yet I did. It's just that--after the first few games--I was oddly drawn to the match. Here were two players--one of them a former U.S. Open champion--going against each other late at night with barely a few spectators to cheer them.

These are two no-nonsense competitors. Stand up, hit the ball, hit it back, hit it again, game over, yes m'am. With Vandeweghe, you have to wonder: Where did it come from and where does it go? She has such a big serve and such a big forehand, and her backhand isn't that shabby. And while, in her face, she still looks about 13, the rest of her has changed. Vandeweghe is more solid and muscular now, and her footwork is a lot better than it was even a year ago. Her volleys have improved, too.

In some ways, Stosur might have thought she was looking in a mirror. They both served big, wanted to keep the points short, and liked to set up volleys off of powerful groundstrokes. And while Vandeweghe's second serve lacks Stosur's signature high kick, it did often go right to Stosur's body, forcing her to back up in a somewhat handcuffed position.

There was no break in the first set until the end, when Vandeweghe got shaky, and Stosur was able to grab the set at 7-5. It was late at night, Stosur is still a big name in tennis, and Coco is Coco, so it wouldn't have surprised me if the Australian star had just cruised through the next set. But here was another change in Vandeweghe--she just let the first set slide. She was able to take the second set 7-5, and in the final set, when Stosur broke her as she served for the match, she let that slide, too. Vandeweghe broke Stosur right back, and she hung in without giving up any of the aggression that had characterized her play throughout the match.

And then, before you could say "Is the Waffle House still open?" Vandeweghe had advanced to the 4th round. Her 5-7, 7-5, 7-5 win included 41 winners. And while both players made a lot of errors, it was Stosur who wound up making too many. Vandeweghe took it to Stosur, and--while she had moments of shakiness and carelessness--she never let up.

Vandeweghe has now beaten Marina Erakovic, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Sam Stosur. Next up? World number 1 and defending champion Serena Williams.

Tweet of the week

...2 wins in straight sets. What is happening? ;)
Petra Kvitova

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Oh, the poor tennis fans of Miami

How they must suffer.

According to Tennis Channel commentator Mary Carillo, the fans were dreading a three-set match between Maria Sharapova and Lucie Safarova because they just wanted to see Nadal. If this is true, then the WTA has a real P.R. problem. If it isn't true but is the perception of someone in a major tennis media outlet, then the WTA has a real P.R. problem. You know, the kind that can't be airbrushed.

On a lighter note, Carillo cracked me up when she performed a Gabriela Sabatini "press conference moment" (you had to have heard this to appreciate it). It's true: Sabatini was very aware of her own fragility and didn't mind talking about it.

The match did go three sets, with Sharapova winning 6-4, 6-7, 6-2. It took her nine match points and almost three hours, partly because, toward the end, Safarova went all Pennetta on her and started whacking incredible winners to save match points. I got the feeling, after she survived Safarova, that Sharapova's spirits lifted in a way that could help propel her into her sixth Miami final. Before that can happen, though, she'll have some work to do.

The big news today, as far as I'm concerned, was that the top doubles seeds, Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai, and Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, went out in the first round of play. Hsieh and Peng lost to Kimiko Date-Krumm and Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, and Errani and Vinci lost to wild cards Garbine Muguruza and Carla Suarez Navarro. What a score, too: 7-6(7), 1-6, 12-10.

For most people, the big news was probably that Serena Williams had to go three sets against Caroline Garcia. Garcia, once she got herself going, struck the ball very well from the ground and didn't seem to mind who was on the other side of the net. Williams continued to look out of sorts, for lack of a better term. After the match, Rennae Stubbs said to her, "Tell me one thing that was good about that match for you." Williams replied: "Nothing."

Serena Williams just hasn't been herself lately. And when she isn't herself, the first thing to go is her footwork. Her next opponent is likely to be Sam Stosur, and things could get tricky for her, since Stosur doesn't mind hitting body serves and applying heavy topspin.

Garcia, by the way, has entered the qualifying event in Charleston.

Angelique Kerber made quick work of Tsvetana Pironkova, Ana Ivanovic beat Indian Wells champion Flavia Pennetta in straight sets, Ekaterina Makarova defeated Sara Errani (which means that Errani and Vinci are out of both events), and Petra Kvitova beat Donna Vekic--in straight sets. Kirsten Flipkens got a walkover from Sabine Lisicki, who is ill with flu. Flipkens' next challenge will be to play Sharapova.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Halep withdraws from Miami

I don't like the term "blessing in disguise," yet sometimes I have to go with it. I'm kind of going with it in the case of Simona Halep's withdrawal from the Sony Open because of a toe injury. The world number 5 (I like saying that) has had foot problems lately; notably, in her Achilles tendons. It's no surprise that she would have a toe injury.

13th seed Roberta Vinci is out (again), defeated by Barbora Zahlavova Strycova. The Czech player had a couple of signature anger outbursts during the match, prompting Tennis Channel commentator Tracy Austin to give some speeches about professionalism. Speeches or no speeches, this is how Zahlavova Strycova is on court. Always has been, always will be.

Genie Bouchard is out too--defeated 1-6 6-1, 6-2 by Elina Svitolina. But the shock of the day was the upset of 7th seed Jelena Jankovic by Varvaro Lephenko. I mean this as no slight against Lepchenko; it's just that JJ was up 5-1 in the third set. And then lost the set--and the match--in a tiebreak.

There was a lot of action in doubles. Martina Hingis and Sabine Lisicki beat Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Safarova. Raquel Kops-Jones and Abigail Spears beat Kristina Mladenovic and Flavia Pennetta. Vania King and Zheng Jie beat Lisa Raymond and Liezel Huber (that's right--Raymond and Huber) 7-6, 7-6.

Tomorrrow, Maria Sharapova plays Lucie Safarova. 'Pova, by the way, has teamed with pinkberry to promote Sugarpova.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Oh, to be in Miami

Because there, I would probably have working plumbing. In the meantime, I've been relatively absent because of matters related to pipes and sludge. As I write this, Serena Williams has just beaten Yaroslava Shvedova in the Miami second round. Williams, who won 7-6, 6-2, had to fight off three set points in the first set tiebreak, and this after she broke Shvedova when she served for the set at 5-4.

In the meantime, Tsvetana Pironkova has already beaten Galina Voskoboeva and Sorana Cirstea. Next up for the Woman of Mystery is Angelique Kerber.

Coco Vandeweghe defeated Anastasia Pavluyuchenkova today. Did anyone see that coming? Qualifier Donna Vekic defeated former Miami champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, and Indian Wells champion Flavia Pennetta has advanced to the third round.

Wild card Oh-Nadia Petrova went out in the second round to Sabine Lisicki; Petrova beat Urszula Radwanska in the first round. The Russian just got a wild card into the Charleston main draw, which is very good news. Shelby Rogers has a wild card, too, and there are more to come.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Some final thoughts about Indian Wells

The BNP Paribas Open was kind of special for me this year because players I like very much--Flavia Pennetta, Aga Radwanska, Simona Halep, Li Na, and Jelena Jankovic all showed up in the last stages of the tournament. And while Halep was too tired, Radwanska was ultimately too injured, and Li went off to Na Na Land, I was still glad to see them all get to the semifinals or better. Of course, it was often hard for me to cheer for anyone because I wanted them all to win!

Having Pennetta win was truly the icing on the cake. Pennetta is iconic to me, even though she has never won a major. What a pleasure it was to see her take home a trophy from a premier mandatory event.

My favorite match (and I didn't see them all, of course) was the quarterfinal played between Radwanska and Jankovic. And my favorite moment of the whole tournament--not counting Pennetta's moment of victory--was when Jankovic challenged a call while lying on the court with her legs dangling. That's our JJ.

That was a rather sharp contrast to Maria Sharapova's insistence that she didn't challenge a call when everyone saw her make the universal "I challenge" gesture. I noticed that the chair umpire for the men's final made a point of telling the players that the best way to challenge a call is to say that you are challenging.

On to Miami, speaking of Sharapova. The Russian star has been the runner-up there five times, but has never won. Beating her for those five titles were Kim Clijsters, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Victoria Azarenka, Agnieszka Radwanska, and Serena Williams. Will the Miami Curse be lifted this year?

Why does a 32-year-old Fighting Italian keep fighting?

Answer: Because she hasn't won Indian Wells yet.

Today was a huge day for Flavia Pennetta, aka Queen of Fed Cup, and creator of some of the most impressive comebacks on the tour. On at least three occasions that I can recall, Pennetta has had to stay out for months because of serious injury, and she had a hard time climbing back up the rankings, but she always figured out a way to do it. She also had a couple of very public personal issues that served to strengthen her immense fighting spirit.

The hard court-loving Italian had to have wrist surgery at the end of 2012. Because of her age, she considered retiring from professional tennis this time last year, and had she done so, she would have retired with a great career record. Pennetta was the first Italian woman to reach the top 10 in singles, and the first Italian to be number 1 in doubles, a distinction she held when she played doubles with Gisela Dulko.

Instead, Pennetta kept on fighting. In 2013, she reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open for the first time, and this year, she reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. Today, Flavia Pennetta won the BNP Paribas Open, a premier mandatory event. When she left the court after her 6-2, 6-1 victory over 2nd seed Agnieszka Radwanska, Fabio Fognini--who delayed his trip to Miami to support her--poured cold water all over his countrywoman, and it must have been the greatest cold water to ever shock her skin.

That's the good part of the story. There's also a sad part: Radwanska's knee, which has apparently been bothering her for a while, did everything but cause her to retire. It was obvious from early in the match that the Polish star's movement was inhibited. She used all of the medical timeouts she was permitted to use, and she played to the end, but the person on the other side of the court just wasn't Radwanska. And then the woman who is known for having almost no facial expression at any time cried with disappointment. She had a hard time giving her speech, but was helped by a very supportive and appreciative crowd.

I expected this to be a good match with a healthy Radwanska, and figured it could go either way (Pennetta beat Radwanska in Dubai earlier this year), despite a general expectation that the 2nd seed would win it. I was saddened to see Radwanska have to play a big final in that condition. However, no credit should be taken from Pennetta, who, after all, beat top seed Li Na to get into the final. Pennetta got off to a shaky start today, but then kept her mind on her own swings, and lobbed and dropped her opponent into submission.

When the rankings are published tomorrow, Pennetta--the 20th seed in Indian Wells--will be number 12 in the world.

Top seeds Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai won the doubles title. In the final, they defeated 5th seeds Cara Black and Sania Mirza 7-6, 6-2. Hsieh and Peng are now 11-0 in finals.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Shopping for Sloane

I was in my local Target today and decided to do some (fantasy) shopping for Sloane Stephens' upcoming birthday. She doesn't turn 21 until Thursday, but her big party takes place today.

First, though, let me say that I cannot be believe how critical people have become over Stephens' birthday gift registration at Target. Target, of course, has no such thing as a birthday registry, so Stephens used the wedding registry and put her mother's name down as the other person involved. "I was going to marry myself," she said, "but I couldn't put my same name. I ended up having to put my mom's."

Her mother announced to friends, "Dear Everyone, Sloane has married me on Target....She's very strange. Known her since she was little. Just buy her a gift."

First, I can't stop laughing about this. Sloane and her mother have kind of made my weekend (Indian Wells is pretty good, too, but more on that at another time.) I also have some empathy with Stephens. When I think back on all the stupid, useless, not-even-remotely-my-taste "gifts" I've received over the years, I tend to think that Sloane might be on to something. People say "But it's the thought that counts." Sorry, but the "thought" needs to include some reasonable idea about who is receiving the gift and that person's tastes and desires. If not, well--that isn't thinking at all.

Would I do a gift registry? No, but I'm not 20 years old, either.

Anyway, I assumed that Sloane got everything that was on her list, but since I was in Target, I couldn't resist "selecting" some items I thought she'd want in addition to those on her gift registry:

For when she hangs out with Genie and the gang:

For those karaoke sessions:

For when she snacks with Serena:

For after she does that foot bath, a bottle of Nicole by OPI Be Awesome!

 Don't show Coach Annacone!:

Because Dr. Seuss says it best:

And, you know, because she's Sloane:

So here's wishing a happy upcoming birthday to Sloane. As she said after her quarterfinal loss to Flavia Pennetta in Indian Wells: "I'm only 20 years old. Who cares? Flavia is like 32 and she's still doing well. If I'm going to play for that long, I have a long ways to go."

Sweeping the court

Caroline Wozniacki has fired coach Michael Mortenson. Quelle surprise!

Now that I know it exists, I think I, too, want an inflatable movie screen, though I have no idea how I would use it. Are you a "buy from the registry" kind of person, or would you give Sloane something she's not expecting? I have this vision of her sitting in her new tent, soaking her feet in the spa tub, watching a movie on the big inflated screen, and then--when it's over--belting out some karaoke. Camping with Sloane might be fun. I'm ready for some waffles.

Victoria Azarenka and Laura Robson have withdrawn from the Sony Open because of their respective foot and wrist injuries.

Aleksanda Wozniak has received a wild card into the main draw of the Sony Open.

Radio Tennis has departed Indian Wells and is Orlando this weekend for the Orlando Women's Open. No one else covers the small tournaments the way Radio Tennis does.

The Fed Cup tie between France and the USA, scheduled for April 19-20, will take place at the Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis.

Elena Vesnina does it up for Playboy Russia.

Notes from Na Na Land

We always know that it can happen. It did happen, when Li Na was trying oh, so hard to close her match against Aleks Wozniak earlier in the week in Indian Wells. It was there when she made 59 unforced errors against Dominika Cibulkova. But last night, "it" happened in the old, "I can't believe what I'm seeing" way. The top seed crumbled against a not exactly steady Flavia Pennetta in the Indian Wells semfinals.

Pennetta had already survived that crazy wind-blown third set against Sloane Stephens, so--despite some shakiness--she did know she was a survivor. Even after she served (not too well) for the first set and was broken, the Fighting Italian knew she had a chance to win the set. She won it, too, in a tiebreak. And that tiebreak was one of the few stretches in the match in which both players performed well.

Li went up a break in the second set, but her rash error-making and double-faulting (nine in all) continued, so Pennetta adopted the simple strategy of hitting the ball to the center of the court while engaging Li in long rallies and hanging in until Li made an error. It worked almost every time, and the Italian's 7-5, 6-3 victory earned her aa spot in the final, her first at a premier level.

Some trips to Na Na Land are what the Brits call mini-breaks. Some are all-out vacations with no forehand packed.

In the final, Pennetta will play Anieszka Radwanska. I had looked forward all day to seeing the semifinal between Radwanska and Simona Halep, and while it could have been better, I wasn't disappointed. Halep was obviously tired; she has played a lot of tennis lately and has played some of it with a double Achilles injury. Then energy wasn't quite there last night, but I may still like this match-up probably more than any other on the tour.

There were some very fine points in this match--a few that made me gasp. But Radwanska had no let-downs, and was able to conjure her special magic against a player who actually reminds me a bit of the Polish star. Halep doesn't have all the tricks (no one does), but she sure has the angles. Radwanska won, 6-3, 6-4, but Halep got a prize, too: She is now in the top 5.

Meanwhile, top seeds Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai ended the impressive run of wild cards Svetlana Kuznetsova and Sam Stosur. The top team beat the wild cards 2-6, 7-6, 10-2. They will face 5th seeds Cara Black and Sania Mirza (who always remembers to pack her forehand) in the final.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Pennetta overcomes weather and Sloane Stephens in Indian Wells

Mary Carillo: "We're gonna show some highlights of the match."
Flavia Pennetta: "Do we have to?"

You couldn't blame Flavia Pennetta for not wanting to see any part of the mess that was her quarterfinal match against Sloane Stephens at the BNP Paribas Open. To be fair to both players, there was so much wind during the third set that playing was very difficult, and it was obvious that neither woman believed she could go much for her shot. Of course, there are "wind experts"--I give you Vera Zvonareva and Jelena Jankovic--who don't let all those gusts bother them too much, but most players haven't mastered that specialty.

Pennetta won the first set 6-4, served for the match in the second set, and then lost six games in a row. She really did look done, and then, of course, the wind came up in the third set, which confounded both opponents. But Stephens turned out to be the more confounded of the two, and toward the end, was going for shots that absolutely could not be controlled under windy conditions.

The players get somewhat of a pass on that tough third set, but the match--as a whole--was still nothing to get excited about. It ended for Pennetta with a 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 victory, and she'll play top seed Li Na in the semifinals.

I saw the beginning of the Li Na vs. Dominika Cibulkova match and then had to go somewhere. When my meeting ended, I stopped by a Barnes & Noble to catch what I could of the match, but the electricity had gone out--wouldn't you know it?--and there was no wireless connection. So I drove to a Starbucks and was able to watch the last half of the third set.

Li committed 59 unforced errors and hit 32 winners. Cibulkova committed 51 unforced errors and hit 16 winners. Maybe that's enough said.

So we're down to Li, Pennetta, Aga Radwanska, and Simona Halep. No matter what, we'll get a brand new Indian Wells champion. Radwanska is 3-2 against Halep; Halep won the last two times they played. Li is 3-2 against Pennetta.

The Adventures of JJ and Aga, Queens of the Desert

Last night, toward the end of the third set--when Jelena Jankovic was sitting on the court, legs up, head turned sideways, and muttering to her box--commentator Mary Carillo noted that it might help the Serbian player if she could stay calm. "This is calm--for her," Lindsay Davenport quickly retorted.

How true. With all the falling down (and there was a lot of it), muttering and legs in the air, there was also a lot of smiling from Jankovic, and really, she and opponent Agnieszka Radwanska didn't have too much to separate them. Each went through terrible streaks during the match--usually brought about my repeated forehand errors--and each looked brilliant at various times. I actually love this match-up. Both women are such good movers, and watching Jankovic use her signature backhand down the line (looking more like the classic one from her) to interrupt Radwanska's trickery is fun. They are both such great athletes that the worst things they do are still okay with me.

Also, just to see The Drama Queen face off against the Great Stone Face is high-level entertainment--WTA theatre at its best. Large moths kept plopping onto the court and had to be removed, adding to the comedy of the evening. A bug would be removed, then JJ would fall down onto the court like a bug. Throughout all this, Radwanska never changed her facial expression. I was very tired and needed to sleep, but I couldn't take my eyes off of those two.

Radwanska won, 7-5, 2-6, 6-4, and advanced to the semifinals, in which she will play Simona Halep. Who doesn't want to see that?

Today, Li Na and Dominika Cibulkova will compete in the quarterfinals, and I'm sure Li is hoping for a less dramatic experience than she had in her last round, winning on her 11th match point against Aleksandra Wozniak. In the other quarterfinal match, Flavia Pennetta--who beat countrywoman Camila Giorgi in the 4th round--will play Sloane Stephens. Someone has obviously been whispering "It's like a fifth major" major into Stephens' ear because she has performed unusually well in Indian Wells.

It should also be mentioned--though, at this point, it's a copy and paste issue--that Petra Kvitova was obviously ill during her last round, and was easily vanquished by Cibulkova. The combination of asthma and viral infections (which trigger asthma) have done her in, and it's a sad situation.

On Tuesday, 8th Lucie Hradecka and Zheng Jie advanced to the semifinals in doubles with a win over 4th seeds Kveta Peschke and Katarina Srebotnik. Yesterday, 5th seeds Cara Black and Sania Mirza (who could give lessons in forehand execution) took out 2nd seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina in straight sets.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

"This gal's a good player"

That was pretty much the extent of Eugenie Bouchard's on-court "coaching" experience after she won her second set against Simona Halep today in Indian Wells. Of all the embarrassing (and I know, I'm being redundant here) on-court coaching moments I've heard, this may have been the worst. I don't like on-court coaching, as readers of this blog know, but if a player is going to use it, she needs to get some strategy or some correction out of it. Maybe a bit of encouragement, too, but only as an extra. Bouchard got "This gal's a good player."

Halep, who--after taking the first set easily (6-2)--wasn't such a good player for some time. Bouchard won the second set 6-1 and didn't have much trouble doing it. Halep had her usual service problems, and even went down 3-4 in the third set. We've now come to expect her to turn things around at the last moment--and while I don't think that's a very wise way to play professional tennis--so far, it kind of works for her. She broke Bouchard back and it was once again all about Simona; she won the third set 6-4. Confidence goes a long way. Now, if she can just do something about that serve.

And speaking of players who like to get it done the hard way, Petra Kvitova went three sets yesterday to beat Svetlana Kuznetsova. She won the final set 6-0, and during the first and third sets, she looked like "real Petra."

Poor Lauren Davis, after having such a good run, she had to give Casey Dellacqua a walkover; Davis is the victim of food poisoning.

The defending champion, Maria Sharapova, was upset yesterday by qualifier Camila Giorgi. Fans sometimes talk about Giorgi's "Fighting Italian" similarities to Sara Errani, but to me, she's always most resembled Flavia Pennetta (but without the wonderful sneer). She fights and fights and fights, and when she gets a bit of a breather, she double-faults. She and Sharapova both struggled a lot during yesterday's match, and some of it was really unattractive to watch. But the Fighting Italian came through, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5. (Right after this occurred, the ATP defending champion, Rafael Nadal, was also upset, by Alex Dolgopolov, who is kind of the Kvitova of the men's tour, but with a lower ranking).

Giorgi's next opponent? Pennetta! Interesting. Pennetta, by the way, knocked out Sam Stosur.

Jelena Jankovic took care of Caroline Wozniacki easily in straight sets, and Aleks Wozniak beat Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Sloane Stephens defeated Ana Ivanovic, Dominika Cibulkova defeated Ekaterina Makarova, Alysa Kleybanova brought Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor's run to an end, and top seed Li Na quietly advanced over Karolina Pliskova (who went into a service slump and hit only two aces).

Sunday, March 9, 2014

On the second day of Christmas

Radwanska gave to me--two sets at love. She gave them to Annika Beck, too, in Indian Wells tonight. The whole thing lasted an hour and seven minutes. Jim Courier referred to Radwanska as a "Swiss Army knife of a player" (has anyone else noticed that he has stopped his chronic habit of putting down women?).

Courier and Mary Carillo then launched into a discussion of USA tennis whose purpose seemed to be to prepare fans for a letdown. The presumption on Courier's part was that "Americans" (sorry, but for me, that term has to include our neighbors in Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Paraguay, etc.) can't assume that just because a player has "the stars and stripes on her/his shoulders," that the USA will prevail. Are citizens of the U.S. chauvinistic enough to presume that? Courier seems to think so.

Also, can we please stop the criticism of Radwanska because she has no affect on court? It's an individual personality thing--and it worked pretty damned well for Chris Evert, just in case anyone in the booth needs to be reminded.

It didn't take a lot of effort for Lauren Davis to win her match. She prevailed over countrywoman Varvara Lepchenko in straight sets. Eugenie Bouchard beat Sara Errani in straight sets, too, and Casey Dellacqua beat Roberta Vinci, so the "Italian redemption" was short-lived.

Carla Suarez Navarro and Alize Cornet went at it for three hours and 26 minutes--is anyone surprised? Cornet got the win, 6-7, 7-5, 6-3, though Suarez Navarro served for the match in the second set. (Does this mean that Cornet is the new Paszek?)

Caroline Wozniacki defeated Yaroslava Shvedova, and--in a match that was enough to make any fan of either player considerably nervous--Simona Halep defeated Lucie Safarova 6-2, 4-6, 6-4. Halep's serve was way off, or there wouldn't have been three sets. She's going to have to do something about that (note to Halep: the French Open begins in May). Halep plays Genie Bouchard next; that has the potential to be an outstanding match.

The "dream team" of Kristina Mladenovic and Flavia Pennetta were shown the exit today, also, by Kimiko Date-Krumm and Barbora Zahlavova Strycova.

Elena Baltacha diagnosed with liver cancer

Former British number 1 Elena Baltacha, who retired last year at age 30, has been diagnosed with liver cancer. At age 19, Baltacha was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, known to be a precurser to liver cancer, though the succession of events is rare. Baltacha's immune system has been compromised for a while.

Baltacha is currently receiving treatment for the cancer. There is speculation that an attempt will be made to shrink the tumor so that it can be removed. Liver cancer is rarely diagnosed in someone as young as Baltacha, who says she is "fighting this illness with everything I have."

Her body riddled with injuries, Baltacha, or "Bally," as she is known in the tennis world, had to travel with a large collection of pills in order to manage her fatigue level, which was always vulnerable because of her liver condition. It was remarkable that her career lasted so long, but Baltacha never let her illness get in the way of competing.

Kerber out of Indian Wells

Playing a big game that included hitting 60 winners and making 72 unforced errors, Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor upset 5th seed Angelique Kerber 2-6, 7-6, 6-4 in Indian Wells yesterday. Kerber did serve for the second round match, but was unable to stop Torro-Flor from overtaking her. The German star didn't exit alone, though; countrywoman Sabine Lisicki was also defeated in the second round, by Aleksandra Wozniak. Wozniak beat Lisicki 7-5, 1-6, 7-6.

Also serving for the match but failing to win was Elina Svitolina. She and Ana Ivanvic broke each other 10 times, and many of the breaks occurred in succession in the final set. It was as if no one wanted to win. Once the third set got to a tiebreak, though, experience favored Ivanovic, and win she did, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6.

Alysa Kleybanova advanced to the third round with a win over Garbine Muguruza, and Ekaterina Makarova came back from a set and a break down to defeat Monica Niculescu. Top seed Li Na won her all-Chinese contest against Zheng Jie, and Sloane Stephens--though she got off to a slow start--brought out an impressive variety of shots to defeat Ajla Tomljanovic in straight sets. This was the Sloane worthy of all the media attention. Which Sloane will arrive to play Ivanovic in the next round?

Friday, March 7, 2014

Redemption in the desert, Italian style

Roberta Vinci finally won a match. It's been a long losing streak for such a good player, but it ended today in Indian Wells when the world number 14 defeated Madison Keys 6-3, 6-3 in the first round. Yesterday, Francesca Schiavone finally turned her losing ways around, too, beating Mona Barthel in three sets.

Sara Errani won today, also. She defeated Sharon Fichman 6-1, 6-1. Italian qualifier Camila Giorgi won her opening round (def. Andrea Petkovic), but Karin Knapp was taken out by wild card Taylor Townsend. All in all, though, it's been a good tournament so far for the Italians. Except in doubles: Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci went out in the opening round to wild cards Svetlana Kuznetsova and Samantha Stosur. This is definitely a wild card team to watch.

Qualifier Heather Watson had a great win in the first round against wild card Belinda Bencic, but lost her second round match against Agnieszka Radwanska today. Karolina Pliskova has played just one round but has already hit 20 aces. Pliskova is now regularly hitting aces like it was nothing.

Simona Halep and Genie Bouchard both won their second round matches, defeating Karumi Nara and Peng Shuai, respectively. Annika Beck has already beaten both Stefanie Voegele and Elena Vesnina.

An obviously troubled, pain-ridden Victoria Azarenka took to the court tonight against Lauren Davis and looked as if she might retire any moment in the first set, which she lost without winning a game. It was painful to watch. Azarenka, who spent the entire month of February in a walking boot because of her injured left foot, approached the second set with more spirit, but it was quite clear that her foot was hurting her.

The world number 4 did not look pleased. She smashed a racket in frustration at one point, but still managed to get to a tiebreak, after she broke when Davis served for the match. But Davis prevailed in the tiebreak and advanced to the next round. One of the television commentators noted that Azarenka had not been practicing on the Indian Wells courts, which indicates that she probably wasn't really ready to return to the tour. She didn't look ready. Was this simple poor judgment, or is all the criticism thrown at her carrying a lot of influence in her decision-making?

Azarenka has always been injury-prone, but she has worked hard to overcome this tendency. There will always be injuries in professional tennis, however, and if a player hurts her ankle and has to wear a boot for a month, that's pretty serious. Maybe she needs more rehab. All credit to Lauren Davis for exhibiting a lot of poise while her opponent was publicly dealing with anger, pain and frustration. Davis played well and looked unruffled (hanging out with Chris Evert pays off). Vika, on the other hand, looked quite ruffled, but that's Vika.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Sweeping the court

Lindsay Davenport has been elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. And, finally, so has Nick Bollettieri. Davenport, who is now a tennis commentator, won three singles majors, three doubles majors and an Olympic gold medal in singles. She was number 1 in the world for 98 weeks.

Today is World Tennis Day.

And speaking of international tennis, I haven't commented before now on the new International Premier Tennis League because I don't understand how two tours filled with complaints about the length of the season would then assent to adding an activity to the off-season. I understand the idea from a marketing standpoint, but with all the injuries, it just doesn't make sense to me.

Women Who Serve wishes a fast, comfortable recovery for Matt Cronin.

A court has dismissed 2008 charges against Sania Mirza. These charges (there have been several over the years--all seemingly ridiculous) have to do with whether Mirza stood with her hands behind her back while the Indian national anthem was being performed.

Here is Serena Williams in the Michael Costello gown she wore to the Vanity Fair Oscars party.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Cibulkova wears the sombrero!

Every year, at the end of the Acapulco tournament, I look forward to seeing the photos of the winner in a sombrero. This year, the honor goes to Dominika Cibulkova, who won her fourth yesterday in Acapulco. Cibulkova defeated Christina McHale 7-6, 4-6, 6-4 in the final. That second set was the only set Cibulkova dropped in the tournament. The final lasted just under three hours.

The Acapulco final was McHale's first. Cibulkova, the 2014 Australian Open runner-up, is now number 11 in the world.

Kristina Mladenovic and Galina Voskoboeva, seeded 2nd, won the doubles title. In the final, they defeated Petra Cetkovska and Iveta Melzer (she's back!) 6-3, 2-6, 10-5. Voskoboeva becomes the first player in the WTA to win more than one title while playing as a partner to Mladenovic. The very talented doubles player likes to spread the joy among many partners.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Zakopalova and Florianopolis--two words that go together

Klara Zakopalova must have said to herself, "Enough is enough." Before today, she had last won a title in 2005. Last week, the Czech player lost the Rio final to Karumi Nara, and today, she was down a set and 2-5 to Garbine Muguruza in the Florianopolis final. To make matters worse, 3rd seed Zakopalova had already lost to Mugaruza in a final this year--in Hobart.

In that Hobart final, Muguruza put up a 6-0 final set. That's what Zakopalova did today, after coming very close to lifting another runner-up trophy. She defeated the Spaniard 4-6, 7-5, 6-0. So there.

Anabel Medina Garrigues and Yaroslava Shvedova won the doubles title. They defeated Francesca Schiavone and Silvia Soler-Espinosa 7-6, 2-6, 10-3.